Bristol City Council is consulting on plans for the Greater Bristol Bus Network along the A4 Bath Road. Let's hope they do a better job than last time, when they consulted on the A420 Showcase Bus Route. The consultation took place over a relatively short period in the summer, when many people were away. The drop-in shop in Church Road where local residents could supposedly go to learn more about the plans was staffed by people who knew nothing about the proposals, couldn't answer any questions and did little other than hand out maps of the proposed route. After meeting with local residents and local shopkeepers I lobbied the Council to get the consultation period extended, and for an actual dialogue with those who had concerns, e.g. council officials actually getting out and talking to the shopkeepers about the impact the bus lane and new parking restrictions would have on passing trade.
So has anything been learnt from the experience last time? The signs aren't good. What's billed as an 'informal consultation' is already running, from 4 July to 14th August, a period when many people are away. There's a drop-in shop, which is open three days a week over a short period. I hope we aren't in one of those scenarios when very few people know about the consultation, the plans are published, no-one likes them - and the council responds by saying 'well you were consulted'. It's only a genuine consultation if (a) everyone knows it's taking place, (b) there's a two-way dialogue, with as much information as possible being given to those who are interested in the consultation and someone who can answer their questions as and when they arise, and (c) people are given sufficient time to check out the plans and to respond, including organising their own informal consultations within their community. In the latter case I'm thinking of local residents' groups, neighbourhood partnerships, shopkeepers, businesses on the industrial parks, schools (not just the school run, but there's quite an issue in transporting pupils from schools to other premises to use facilities there, and the time it takes). I simply don't think this can be done in the time available, but I think it's essential that such groups pool information with each other and hammer out their collective response. It will give their submissions much more clout.
So I have some questions for the Council: Who decided that this was a suitable time to have the consultation, and why? What efforts have been made to let local residents and road users know about the consultation? A leaflet drop to local residents would not suffice; it's a major road from Bristol to Bath, many of the road users aren't local. Has, for example, information been distributed to motorists using the A4 Park and Ride? What happens after the informal consultation closes? Will the submissions be made public, at least in summary form? What feedback will those making submissions get, and will the Council facilitate opportunities for the concerns and objections to be discussed, for example in public meetings?
Apart from the fact that it's my job to ask such questions, as the A4 runs through my constituency, I'm also asking these questions now because I think it's absolutely crucial we get this right. The A4 is a dreadful transport corridor at the moment. The traffic is always heavy, and often unpredictable; what should be a ten minute journey can sometimes take three-quarters of an hour, not just at peak times but at random points throughout the day. It affects shops, businesses, people's jobs and lives. The GBBN is being supported by a considerable amount of Government money - £43 million or so across the city - which we've lobbied hard for over the year. It's too good an opportunity to squander.